The Red Panda Drill / by Ashvin Sangoram

      I once went to a Bulls game in the mid-90's during the Jordan-era and the half-time act was a Chinese acrobat who went by the moniker "The Red Panda."  She did a number of balancing demonstrations but the coup de grace was a balancing feat on a 7-foot high unicycle.  She started riding it in a wide circle that took up about half the court.  Her assistant tossed her two bowls that she carefully balanced: one on her head and one on her right foot, still cycling the unicycle with her left foot back and forth in place to keep balance.  When she was ready she flipped the bowl up with her foot and caught the bowl on her head -- stacked on the bowl that was balanced there in the first place.  Very impressive! But she wasn't done.

  The assistant tossed her two bowls the next time around, and again she carefully stacked and balanced them on her right foot all the while pedaling one-footed  to maintain balance on the unicycle with two bowls in place on her head.  When she got the feeling, a swift kick of the right foot and the bowls flipped up, and again she caught both bowls on her head without any use of her hands (other than to maintain balance on the unicycle).  Four bowls securely on her head, she proceeded around the arc repeating the feat with three bowls. 

  By this time the audience was rapt in attention to this woman who could seemingly do no wrong. Each successful catch resulted in louder and louder applause.  Four bowls were just as smooth and the crowd could not believe what it was seeing.  The grand finale was five bowls that she stacked on her foot. At this point the audience was pretty certain that this woman, The Red Panda, was as sure as a Jordanesque buzzer-beater jump-shot.  And true to form, she nailed the finale catching all 5 bowls on her head while riding the unicycle flawlessly around the arc.  A total of 15 bowls tossed (by foot!) over the 5 attempts, catching every single one of them on her head.  Her hand-eye coordination (or should I say foot-head coordination) was simply off-the-charts.  The crowd went crazy.

  This dainty Chinese acrobat had stolen the show from what was, in the form of a World Champion Chicago Bulls game, a very tough act to follow.

       The training that this acrobat had to undergo to develop this skill must have been at a level of rigor that few athletes would be willing to match.  The balance and strength that must have developed in her core to perform this feat, along with the judgment of force necessary to get those bowls to their destination is (almost) singular.  Google "Chinese acrobat unicycle bowls" and  Youtube videos featuring the Red Panda and numerous other Chinese acrobats abound demonstrating even further feats of difficulty (all involving bowls and 7-foot high unicycles). 



  The "Stars of the Beijing Circus" features a group of five women all riding unicycles performing various and sundry tosses of bowls to each other, in synchrony and in movement demonstrating a level of control that is other-worldly.  And yet we all know that at some point each of these women made the attempt (and failed) to mount a bicycle for the first time.  They attempted (and failed) to mount a short unicycle for the first time. They attempted (and failed) to mount a 7-foot unicycle for the first time. They attempted (and failed) to balance a bowl while riding said unicycle for the first time.  They attempted (and failed) to toss that bowl in the direction of their heads once balanced while riding said unicycle for the first time.  (You get the progression by this point…) They failed all of these times before they succeeded in performing an act that on the surface appears effectively impossible.  

     With the Red Panda and her colleagues as background, the point of this drill is not for you to go out and buy a 7 foot unicycle and refit your wedges with 7 foot shafts. Rather, the idea is to bring in a level of difficulty commensurate with your existing ability to help train balance while executing short chips.  

   The principle of goal-setting for this drill is to titrate the failure rate so that learning can take place without utter frustration.  Failure is absolutely acceptable and the level of difficulty must match so that you can be "successful" around 40-60% of the time.  For the novice this may mean simply balancing on one foot and trying to make contact (any contact) between ball and clubhead. For the high-handicapper it may mean trying to get the ball inside a 20 foot radius of the hole 50% of the time. For the mid-handicapper the goal may be 10 feet. For the single-digit handicapper the goal could be set to 6 feet.  And for the scratch/elite golfer the goal would be inside the leather (less than 2.5 feet). 

  The exact number, however, depends on your own empiric experimentation.  Here's where you turn into an applied neuroscientist.  After 10 preliminary “scouting” attempts at chipping one footed from a good lie,  walk around and remove the 5 worst shots.  Measure the distance from the target hole to the furthest remaining ball.  This is your target distance for the drill.  Now reattempt the drill from a different positions around the green complex with your attention on your own sensory feedback.  

    The question you are trying to answer, in the form of a chip attempt (ie. the actual movement of an executed shot — not a cognitive verbal answer), is this:

  What is the least possible effort I can make, with my muscles in the least tension and remaining in good balance, that will still get the ball to the target?

 With this question and a goal in mind (ball inside X-feet)  you’ve set the stage for your brain to train itself to improve its performance.  It requires making continual softening or firming adjustments to the body as well as deeply feeling the sensation of engaged muscles and how the degree of engagement correlates with the outcome.  This quintessential feedback loop for learning will result in internalization of the correlation.  There will come a point where no conscious cognitive knowledge of how far to take the club head back, what arc the arms/hands/club should trace, nor how much force to use to swing is needed to execute a better than average shot.  When that feeling sets in on more than 50% of your shots, you know you are improving.

   The key to the continued utility of this drill is to adjust the goal intelligently or increase the degree of difficulty of the physical maneuver.   There are merits to each, and you should try to adjust each as you gain experience with the drill.  Adjusting the goal should only occur when 50% of your “scout” shots start to fall inside a smaller radius.  Adjusting the difficulty should occur when you feel comfortable and relaxed with the prior level of difficulty.  Increasing the difficulty could take many forms but here are a few examples for you to riff on based on your own personal preference.

1) Close your eyes, further training the Brain's GPS integration.

2) Balance one-footed on a destabilizing balance pad (like an Airex balance pad), further taxing the cerebellum's balance control and error-correction algorithms.

3) Use one hand while chipping instead of two, challenging the sensory perception ability of the proprioceptive smart-grid inputs.

4) Do both 1) and 2) simultaneously

5) Do 2) and 3) simultaneously

6) do 1) and 3) simultaneously

7) Do all of 1) , 2) and 3) simultaneously

8) Purchase a unicycle on which to perform the drill while doing 1,2 and 3 ;-).


The degree of difficulty should be ramped up whenever you approach a near 60% success rate but should be eased up if you are failing  more than 60% of the time.  This is the dynamic sweet spot of learning.  Since chipping doesn’t take any “God-given” physical prowess to execute, you too can become a chipping "Red Panda".